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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: July 23, 2024 2:44 pm PDT

BY KEVIN KERNAN

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – This was one beautiful spring training sight.

The core value of good old-fashioned hard work.

Not work in the weight room, the pitch lab or engaging in exit-velo hitting in the batting cage, work on the baseball field, but fundamentals. Somehow that has lost its luster. What often passes for work these days is really nothing but eye wash.

At Clover Park the other day, I was having a conversation with new Mets manager Carlos Mendoza, someone I have known for years from his days with the Yankees.

I bought up the subject of the lost art of fundamentals and Mendoza’s eyes lit up.

“You’ll see today we are going to be taking infield and outfield, when was the last time you saw that?’’ Mendoza asked BallNine. “This is something I grew up with.’’

Make no mistake, Carlos Mendoza can hang with all the new school thoughts and analytics, but old school is where it is at too, and, by the way, numbers have always been in the game.

“We are all learning,’’ Mendoza said. “But at the end of the day the guys have to play baseball, they’ve got to have an awareness, they have to anticipate plays.

“They have to think before the play happens and this is some of the things that we are discussing here,’’ he said of life in Met Camp and the Mendoza Line of success. “Attention to detail is something I take a lot of pride in. In baseball you are always in school. You are always learning. But it is just finding that balance, information and having the feel for the game, reading swings, executing pitches, making adjustments.

“Baseball.’’

The Mets are in good hands. Carlos Mendoza respects the game and I wanted to see him in action in his first year as a manager.

As he promised me, the Mets soon went to work with Mendoza leading the way.

He put the Mets through a long session of infield and outfield. It was glorious in its simplicity, the pure rhythm of the game.

Mets manager Carlos Mendoza talks fundamentals with Kevin Kernan at Clover Park. (Photo: Mark Rosenman)

Balls were hit to the left and right of outfielders with throws to all the bases, and not just one time; over and over again. Players were forced to communicate on the field, to read the play developing before their eyes.

And here is the best part, Mendoza was not just standing and observing. He was the one hitting the balls to all his fielders, infield and outfield. He was the one making sure that this was real baseball work, not just someone hitting lazy fly balls and grounders, but balls hit hard and hit to open areas where the effort and the play had to be made.

This was not some Jugs machine drill as so many teams use nowadays, shooting baseballs out from spinning white wheels. Certainly there is room for Jugs work, and actually, before this practice started a number of Mets were halfway down the left field line working with a Jugs machine on popups, kind of a warmup to the real action that was to come.

Mendoza was hitting fungos because he wanted to see how his players reacted to balls he hit. He was in control of the action.

This is how you get better as a team. Now this will take time. It doesn’t happen overnight, but Mendoza was laying the foundation for better baseball days ahead. It was fun to see and this was around 10 a.m., three hours before the game against the Cardinals.

This, Mets fans, is real spring training, and this reinforced what I wrote when the Mets hired Mendoza, that it was a great baseball hire because Mendoza, in his heart, is a baseball man. He’s smart too, as bench coach John Gibbons noted later to me in the dugout. Mendoza, 44, can decipher the analytics in a baseball fashion, creating another tool at his team’s disposal.

When batting practice came around, Mendoza was the second batting practice pitcher for the Mets, too. So not only was he getting direct feedback from being Mr. Fungo, he was getting a great view of the swings of his hitters from the mound.

Carlos Mendoza working some fungo magic. (Photo: Mark Rosenman)

Certainly, you can manage well without being directly being involved in the drills, but it sure sends a direct message to the players when their manager is out there running the show, especially since this is Mendoza’s first camp as a manager and a tone needs to be set.

Especially since the Mets change managers seemingly every year.

They change GMs, too.

Since 2017, the Mets have had six managers: Terry Collins, Mickey Callaway, Carlos Beltran, Luis Rojas, Buck Showalter and now Carlos Mendoza.

As Blood, Sweat & Tears once sang:

What goes up must come down

Spinning Wheel got to go ‘round

Talkin’ ‘bout your troubles

It’s a cryin’ sin

Ride a painted pony

Let the Spinning Wheel spin

And it has been even worse in the front office over that span.

The Amazin’ Mets have somehow have had nine different GMs since 2017. Nine!

That includes the three-headed interim GM crew of John Ricco, Omar Minaya and current podcaster J.P. Ricciardi. Also at the head of the GM table over those years were Sandy Alderson, Brodie Van Wagenen, Jared Porter, Zack Scott, Billy Eppler and now David Stearns.

So if you are keeping score at home, since 2017, the Mets have employed a combined 15 different managers and GMs. Imagine playing in an organization where the Spinning Wheel never stops?

That means a player like Brandon Nimmo, who has been in the majors since 2016, has seen them all come through the door. Pete Alonso was drafted in 2016 so the Polar Bear has seen it all too as he is about to hit free agency after the season.

Stability anyone?

That’s why it is so important for Carlos Mendoza to set a baseball example. If you want to change the culture to a working baseball culture for the Mets, if you want continuity, this is how you start, one fungo at a time.

The Mendoza Line is all about baseball work.

“It all starts with you have to be honest and I learned that from my parents at an early age,’’ Mendoza said with a smile.

I asked Carlos where that work ethic and honest approach comes from and it is no surprise that it all goes back to his parents, Frank and Leyda, who still live in Venezuela.

His dad was a mechanical engineer and his mom was an English teacher.

Carlos Mendoza is going to have no problem keeping up with baseball – and analytics – and he also has a strong staff around him, including bench coach John Gibbons, hitting coach Eric Chavez, pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, first base coach Antoan Richardson, third base coach Mike Sarbaugh, bullpen coach Jose Rosado – who was Mendoza’s pitching coach in Winter Ball where Mendoza managed – and catching coach Glenn Sherlock.

“It all starts with you have to be honest and I learned that from my parents at an early age,’’ Mendoza said with a smile.

Learning even more baseball in the Yankee organization was key to his success as well. He played 13 years in pro ball and became a minor league coach in 2009.

“Once I became a coach I learned from Mark Newman, Pat McMahon, Pat Roessler, those guys were always helping me,’’ Mendoza told me of Yankees player development. “And growing up as a coach in that organization I also learned what it was like to be in a media market like New York. You have to be honest. You have to be accountable. You have to understand that you guys have a job to do.’’

With all the talk now of college coaches jumping to MLB, like it is something new, both Mark Newman, who passed away in 2020, and Pat McMahon came from the college coaching ranks.

With his mother being an English teacher, Mendoza thought he “knew a little bit of English when I signed at 16 years old,’’ he said.

“When I got to the States I was in Instructional League and a coach came up to me that first day and asked me something simple like, ‘How was your flight? What did you have for dinner?’ I had no idea what he was asking me.’’

Mendoza kept working and soon he became proficient in English.

“My mom encouraged me to continue to have conversations in English, she told me to read newspapers because back in the day they had Baseball Weekly and stuff,’’ he explained.

After infield/outfield Carlos Mendoza took to the mound to throw BP. (Photo:Mark Rosenman)

His parents will be here for Opening Day at Citi Field when the Mets take on the Brewers.

“They will hang out with the grandkids and all that,’’ Mendoza said.

I first took notice of Mendoza in 2017 with the Yankees when he was their infield coach. I would be hanging out in the dugout almost to the start of the game on road trips. It was always a good place to hang (the dinner buffet could wait) to maybe get a few minutes alone with a player or just catch the vibe of that game.

I saw before games that Mendoza would place baseballs in different spots in the infield and then come back to the dugout to look at the baseballs. Curious, one day I asked him what he was doing and he patiently explained,

“It’s for infield positioning, especially when you go to new ballparks,’’ Mendoza said. “From different dugouts it is a different view. So you are basically placing the baseballs so you can see what straight up defense against a right-hand hitter is going to look like from your end and then you go off that, so guys can make adjustments, if we are going to play to pull you go all the way over there. But you also have to give the player the freedom to read swings, they have to have a feel for the game and adjust accordingly.’’

Mendoza will bring that defense placement baseball tool to the Mets but because he is the manager now, the job will fall on third base coach Mike Sarbaugh to place the balls in the infield spots before a game. So if Mets fans like Rocco Constantino are at a Mets road game, say at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and notice a Mets coach placing baseballs in different spots in the infield before the game, then going back to the dugout to take in the long view of those baseballs well before first pitch, you can amaze your friends with what is really happening at that moment.

All this is just part of what fundamental baseball is about, working on and adding a tool or tools that make the team better. Everything is important. Having the analytical data to forge a plan of success and being the best a player you can be but also putting in the work to instinctively make that play when needed through detailed work on fundamentals during infield and outfield practice, something that started for the Mets on a gorgeous 82 degree day at Clover Park early in spring training.

To me, it is impossible to overwork on fundamentals and one of the biggest flaws in today’s game is teams don’t do that extra work in a team fashion anymore. What used to be a constant in organizations, especially in the minor leagues, has been lost to “progress’’ of spending time with a coach looking at an iPad instead of actually being on the field, taking those extra fly balls, line drives in the gaps or ground balls.

You have time to do both if you make the time, study the iPad and actively practice.

It’s not always going to be about the shiny new object or algorithm. Often it comes down to good old-fashioned sweat equity and that is all part of the big picture. It’s encouraging that the Mets new manager Carlos Mendoza deeply understands the importance of baseball fundamentals.

The Mendoza Line of success starts with a fungo and the will to succeed.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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